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A Conversation with Shankar Mahadevan

By: Viren Mayani Email By: Viren Mayani
September 2010
A Conversation with Shankar Mahadevan There are many things one knows about Shankar Mahadevan—like how great he is at what he does—and, apparently, many that one finds out when presented with the chance to have a conversation with the great entertainer. Did you know, for example, that he began playing the harmonium and the veena when he was barely five? Or that Sangeeta (how delightful that her name should mean “music”!), his wife and the mother of his two sons, whom he fell in love with when they were in school together, was unaware of his passion for music until much later? Or that he is a certified Oracle programmer? You probably did not. But even if you have a passing acquaintance with Indian pop culture, you’re sure to know that Shankar Mahadevan is currently one of the most successful musicians in India. And that since their debut in the 2001-hit Dil Chahta Hai, the composer-trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (consisting of Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa along with Mahadevan) have continued to chart new territories in Indian film music and are today perhaps the best-loved film music composers in India.
Shankar Mahadevan was in Atlanta recently for the phenomenally successful Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy concert, and I grabbed the opportunity to meet him backstage for an interview. Dressed in a casual black T-shirt and black jeans, and wearing a French beard and an earring on his pierced left ear, the famous singer looked relaxed. Our conversation follows:
Let’s go back in time, and talk about your youth, your growing up.
I’m from a middle class south Indian family, and you know, generally, in south Indian families the kids go and learn some kind of art form. It’s part of the culture. Somebody is learning the violin or singing or some kind of dance. So similarly, my parents discovered my talent when I was still very young, and they realized that I had some inclination towards music. So it was their decision to make me learn music even before I had the consciousness to realize how important it is. I was about five years old. I started playing the harmonium before that. I have learned only Carnatic music. And the rest of the forms of music, I’ve just heard. And generally I think it’s your personality (that makes you) want to learn something when you hear it, and get attracted to it.

What brought you from that classical stage to loving Bollywood music?
Nothing was a planned agenda, actually. Everything moved very smoothly. When I was learning classical music, I never had any (plan that I would) get into commercial music, (and) make so much money, and do so many shows, or so many albums. No—that was not the agenda. My thing was only to learn music for the sake of learning music. So that was wonderful actually, which I find missing nowadays. (Now) everybody has got a ten-year plan?. They don’t focus on the present moment. So I just learned. And things fell into place. When you have talent, it never gets hidden, it just shows up somewhere. It’s like water leakage. It comes out, and comes out from somewhere else. So you get noticed. And you feel that it’s a very big industry. Yes, it IS a very big industry in magnitude, but the number of people who are the players in the industry are very few. You can count them on your fingers. So new spreads like wildfire, and if you’re a person who is talented, everybody wants you. That’s what happened.
Let’s talk about Breathless, a singularly phenomenal album. What inspired you to do something that was completely off the rock at that time?
I had been planning to do a non-film album for a few years and people were telling me to do it, but I was just not finding anything exciting enough, till I met Javed Saab. And HMV, the music company, brought us together. This idea actually originated from Javedji. And this is what excited me. I said yes, this could be the first thing that we’ll do, because I wanted to do something different. Everybody was doing pop stuff, dance, and ballads, and sad songs, and stuff like that. And this was something that I felt would either become very big or something people may not even catch on to. So we just tried it and it worked.
You’re a fantastic singer, but what brought you to composing? Was it an accident?
Well, one thing led to another. I was new in the industry and Ehsaan and Loy were already established music composers in the advertising line. I used to go to them as a singer, but they realized that I had a little more potential than just as a singer, so they used to use my services and my contribution to the music tracks. I would give them ideas and suggestions. In a way it’s like a marriage, you know. God puts you with some people and you are destined to be with these people. Somehow we clicked, and once the songs started getting popular, there was no looking back.
There’s a distinct character to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy songs. How do you bring that about?
We start off with something that we have not done before, but at the same time we have seen that that we’re dealing with a mass media. It’s not something classy where only a few sections of people come, like a niche audience. You are to satisfy the rickshaw driver and you have to satisfy your own soul by doing something different. At the same time, within those parameters, you’ll have to give them something that they have already heard before so they’re in a comfortable zone (and they don’t feel like) they’re tasting a new cuisine altogether. So it’s drawing that balance. It’s a very conscious and calculated decision, every song of ours. You will hear the dholaks, you will hear the strings, but at the same time, the melody would be something fresh. That keeps our music going, and it reaches out to many more people.
In terms of responsibility, between the three of you, is there a specific vertical that each holds?
No. Initially it used to be that (I was the guy) well versed with Indian classical, Indian folk and all the Indian elements, and Ehsaan was the guitarist and Loy the piano player, and their influences were rock, jazz, and all those things. But now what has happened is, over the years, being with each other has made those lines kind of merge into each other. And there are no lines. So sometimes you might think that this Indian melody must definitely be written by Shankar, while actually it may have been written by Ehsaan, or I may have written the piano line or probably done the drum programming for that. So our jobs are, in a way, merging into each other’s. It’s very interesting. If a person who has not learned classical (music) writes an Indian classical melody, the perspective is different. It’s not something which you’re in a comfort zone for and you tend to go in a particular direction. It’s like viewing the same thing from a different angle of camera.
We have seen great composers who work alone and duos that have become legends, but you seldom come across a trio.
Honestly speaking, it’s not usually just one composer. Anan arranger works with him, and a whole lot of musicians work under them. There’re people who conduct various sections of the song. There’s a chorus section, a rhythm section, a melodic section, a string section. So actually, you’re working in a team. And that’s how we work. We do everything from the first note to the last note. And there’s the three of us. We program our own music, we conduct the same, we program the rhythm, we conduct the rhythm section, we write the Indian melodic parts. We’re the programmers, arrangers, composers—everything.
You often judge singing contests on TV. How would you compare the new breed of performers with those of the older generation, who were told they could become professionals only after years of practice?
Practice is a given, you have to do that. If you want to write a book, you have to know the language. Practice is the language you have to know. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t do that, then you better not do it at all. But you can’t only do that, because today things are moving at a speed ten times greater (than before). Today’s kids are very bright. They know what they are doing, they understand, they’re professionals. The only thing I feel is they’re a little calculated in their approach. They have too much planned out, so they are not looking at art in a more abstract way, which they should do. But these shows that you’re talking about, they are fantastic, and a lovely platform, especially for us when we’re looking for talented new singers. The other day I was a judge in a competition. I opened out a list and read out 15 names, all of people who have come out of these reality shows, people whom we’ve given a break. And many more are waiting in the line. It’s almost like an audition for us.
If you had to name someone you were inspired by, who would that be?
Kishore Kumar.
Apart from Bollywood music, have you done any spiritual music?
Lots of it. Bollywood is just one little part of my music that people are hearing. Every year I do spiritual albums. I do a lot of concerts which are non-film based. Zakir Bhai (Ustad Zakir Hussain) was nice enough to introduce me to (a group called) Shakti, and we perform a lot together, and now we’re very, very close. Then, there are many other bands in Bombay—Louis Banks and Shivamani and all the others. Then I do a lot of regional stuff: my songs are very popular in Tamil, Telugu, Bangla, Malayalam, Marathi. Almost every other day in the morning I do regional dubbings— maybe a Telugu song or a Tamil song. So those directors they come to Bombay. I have a complete parallel life happening outside of films.
In terms of the way music is produced and distributed today, when everything is downloadable, where do you think the Indian music industry is headed, since we’re so reliant on CDs?
That’s all over. CD sales, everything—physical sales are almost over, it’s zero.
But what about your revenue?
There are other sources. The big fight happening in the industry is about copyright laws, which are now completely against the advantage of the composer and the author. Hopefully we’re about to win the whole thing and get the rights of whatever we do. If we can do that, it would be great. And sources of revenue—like the internet thing, the mobile thing, satellite—have opened up.
We will [get a share of that], although right now we get nothing. There are musicians who have done great work and are now living in terrible conditions because there’s no royalty, and people took advantage of them. But hopefully we’ll win the fight.
And what does future hold?
Family is most important for both of us and we always look forward to the times when we are together, with each other and with the children. Nothing, not even music, gives us the high (that we get from) spending time at our farm house or just doing simple things like cooking at home and being with the kids, or stepping out to watch a movie and going for dinner or maybe just shopping, without a plan in mind. I can vouch for her also that it is the biggest high for both of us. That is priority number one. Then comes music, then comes your fame and popularity and the success and the money. All these things are important. But if family is not there, all these things don’t make sense.

With his great talent, his charisma and his passion for music, Shankar Mahadevan is sure to be part of the nobility of Indian music for a long, long time to come. He balances his creativity with his rootedness, and will clearly achieve all that he has planned for himself and for the trio. And those of you who couldn’t come to the electrifying Atlanta concert, y’all make sure you don’t miss the next one!

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